Hailed as the answer to stress, insomnia and even ageing, is meditation the ultimate antidote to modern living? Joanna McGarry finds out
Photos: Rex Features
Close your eyes. Take three slow deep breaths. Turn your attention to your breathing; allow it to flow in and out effortlessly. Before you stands a wide, blue lake surrounded by grass-topped mountains. At the other end of the lake, you see a gently frothing waterfall – walk around the lake towards it. You are stood under the waterfall now, with the crisp flow of blue water sliding over your skin and into the lake. Imagine it washing all negative thoughts away. When you feel ready, open your eyes.
I open my eyes and look at the nine other people – seven women, two men – in this big old empty dining room. I can’t deny that there is a massive, disquieting part of my brain that’s going ‘this is bloody hilarious. How did I even end up on a one-day meditation retreat?’ And yet, the waterfall thing I just did with my mind, albeit haphazardly (it’s impossible not to get sidetracked with thoughts about dinner), has sort of worked. My body is still and my shoulders are slunk low, no longer the taut, haunched exoskeleton that walked in eight hours earlier.
The Inner Sceptic
I’m the last person you’d expect to find on a meditation course. I am four parts cynic and one part atheist. I tried yoga once but found the teacher’s elaborately ‘soothing voice’ so inauthentic I never went back. Plus, years of writing about skincare has taught me to search for the proof behind everything. There isn’t a single fibre in me that is ‘hippy’. Surely you’ve got to be a believer for meditation to work?
“I felt the same way,” explains Julie Smith, certified meditation teacher and founder of Nature Meditations, behind the one-day retreat. “There are so many misconceptions about meditation – do I have to sit on a mountain top chanting ‘ommm’? I get it, because I thought them too,” she says. But a meditation class on a holiday to Kathmandu changed her mind. She returned from her trip and her colleagues noticed a change immediately (“I came at problems with a different mindset and a solution”) and started to ask for lessons. Two years ago, she left her corporate job to teach meditation full time. As Smith talks about her life before meditation, I realise she could just as well be talking about me. Rather than ask for help, I tend to solve problems internally and have started to feel as though I am literally consuming my own stress. Combine that with long working hours and the sense of never quite making a dent in my mile-long to-do list. I developed acid reflux last year and I wake up unfailingly at 3.30am each night. Outwardly, I look fine. Inwardly, stress is slowly decaying me.
Slightly worried that considering a path of meditation meant that I’d finally lost the plot, I did a litmus test one night with friends. I told them I was going to learn to meditate and waited for the guffaws. They never came. In fact, there were wails of agreement. One friend with a high-pressure job in the music industry, admitted she had been meditating daily for the past year. “It’s made me feel more motivated to make the best out of my day,” she says. “And creatively, I’ve experienced more flow after meditation sessions.” Where do I sign up?
What is meditation? To some it means incense and sandals. To others, it means prayer and solitude. It has been around in some form since prehistoric man would partake in group chants to appease the gods. Today, it’s enveloped in religions across the globe and the faction employing its practices for improved health and emotional balance is burgeoning. “Meditation is about finding an equilibrium. Each technique varies, but I combined five concepts of meditation for teaching; awareness, being present, allowing, detaching and observing, and patience,” says Smith. Reassuringly, she tells me that 15 minutes three times a week will be enough to see a tangible difference in a few weeks. I am to sit, close my eyes and focus on only my breathing in microscopic detail, imagining positivity gliding in and everything bad puffing out. The following morning, I drag myself out of bed to attempt my first solo meditation. Fifteen minutes felt like an eternity, but I ended the day thinking, ‘I actually got a lot done’ – could that be down to my simply closing my eyes and thinking about breathing?
Of course, this isn’t the only way to meditate. The following day I meet with Jillian Lavender, an ex-CEO turned teacher of Vedic meditation at the London Meditation Centre. Vedic is a classic Indian approach using a personalised mantra, repeated to oneself as a meditative focal point. “Each mantra has a very specific sound and vibrational qualities which are to be used silently. When you hear the sound of your mantra, it immediately pulls the mind effortlessly down to a level just under consciousness,” says Lavender.
Then there is Transcendental meditation (favoured by The Beatles and director, David Lynch), also involving a mantra, made popular in the Seventies through the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Zen meditation – literally translated as ‘seated’ meditation – is derived from the Buddhist faith and is focused on letting ideas and thoughts pass through the mind without judgment. Steve Jobs said it helped enhance his creativity. Mindfulness meditation, based on an acute awareness of the present moment, has been in the spotlight in recent years, mainly because its principles have been borrowed for fad diet books.
Whatever your chosen technique, “the main aim is to come down to this hovering point just beneath consciousness but higher than sleep. That’s when the body and mind hits total relaxation,” says Lavender.
For something so widely considered new-age quackery, there’s a gigantic amount of clinical data and research to back it up. A recent study at Harvard found that deep relaxation can change our bodies on a genetic level. After two months of meditation, volunteers were found to have a range of disease and inflammation fighting cells not present in the volunteers of the control group. And researchers in North Carolina found that one hour of meditation had greater pain relieving potential than morphine.
Perhaps more impressive still, are the psychological affects of meditation. Recent trials into the impact of meditation on the brain at the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University showed that an eight-week course can reduce depression in those prone to it by over 50%. Further research by Dr Richard Davidson in Wisconsin, observed the brains of office workers before and after they participated in a course of meditation. The results showed that they had altered, with greater activity in the left side, an area linked with happiness and enthusiasm. Another study found increased neuron activity in parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotional behaviour and dealing with conflict.
Thrillingly, this means that meditation has the potential to strengthen wellbeing, self-worth and even social skills. If nothing else, anything that spells the end of awkward dinner party chat is worth the effort. “Research into meditation is essential because we are living in an age of information and technology,” explains Lavender. “We’re hard wired to request data. I don’t expect anybody to have blind faith in meditation – it’s not a process of being a believer. It’s important that people do their research.
Finding your path
Two weeks have passed and I have only meditated alone five times now. I should have done more, but it feels a bit like homework. And yet, I’m certain that meditation has already begun its transformation – I feel more empathetic to others and when faced with what I know will be a monster of a day, I’m finding myself relying on a pre-work meditation to give me an extra boost of energy and focus to get through it. An important aspect of maintaining consistency early on in meditating is creating your own space in which to practice. Still, not all forms of meditation have to be in the same place. Lavender tells me that once you’ve mastered the technique, you can use it to soothe, calm or refocus yourself anywhere – in a queue, on the train, eating your lunch, walking to work, sat at your desk. Just close your eyes or choose an object to focus on and then practise the breathing exercise. “I do it all the time on the tube. I’m aware of things around me that I need to be, but I’m able to switch off and relax,” she adds. A way to escape the horror of the commute? Now that’s a real miracle.
The Meditation Glossary
A form of meditation aimed at pulling love, health and happiness to yourself and others.
Originally derived from both Hinduism and Buddhism, this is a word or phrase, usually without linguistic meaning, designed to be repeated continuously to aid concentration and focus during meditation.
Taken from Hindu teachings, chakras are the seven energy centres of the body, from the crown down to the base of the spine. Chakra meditations focus on each of these zones, helping to re-energise.
A common meditative practice, grounding is a method in which the meditator is able to feel more connected to the earth and nature by imagining his or her energy flow to go through the feet and into the ground.
The notion of the mind going beyond the body to reach a state of equilibrium and achieve a heightened understanding of the self during meditation.
Often meditation can cause certain painful or uncomfortable memories or feelings to involuntarily rise to the surface which can create a sudden emotional response such as crying. This is considered to be an important part of the meditative process.